- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

KENLI, China — The Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization, is a dying, severely polluted, seasonal river on the verge of becoming a vast ditch.
All along the river's 3,400-mile course, its tributaries lie dry. In 1972, the Yellow River itself ran dry before reaching the Yellow Sea for the first time in history. In 1997, the river's lower reaches lay dry for more than 200 days.
In Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia province, on the western leg of the wide loop the Yellow River makes up through Inner Mongolia, a Yellow River museum was recently opened to educate people about the history of the river and the importance of water conservation. The province, with a population of 6 million people, has very little rain, and without the Yellow River, it would be desert.
Irrigation works here are more than 2,000 years old. Since China's communists won the civil war in 1949, agricultural land irrigated by the river has been expanded from 316,000 acres to 1.15 million acres. Part of this land is used to grow rice, which requires twice as much water as corn or sorghum.

Upstream regions thirsty
The authorities have allotted Ningxia a yearly quota of 5.2 billion cubic yards of the Yellow River's annual flow of 73 billion cubic yards, but according to the book "China's Water Crisis," Ningxia diverts over 10 billion cubic yards per year.
"It has only rained twice in the whole year," said a man standing down by the river in Shizuishan, a coal-mining town in northern Ningxia. He pointed to some simple houses on the opposite side. "Those houses are new," he said. "The people moved there because their villages up in the hills ran out of water."
All along the Yellow River, diversion and dam projects, big and small, are in progress. The desiccated inner provinces divert as much of the water as they can, leaving little for densely populated areas along the river's lower reaches. Especially in Shandong province, the shortage of water has led to several riots in the past few years.

Underlying issues slighted
Critics argue that too little of the government's efforts to tackle this mammoth problem are being focused on the roots of the water crisis: deforestation of the inner provinces; the indiscriminate, uneconomical use of water for agriculture; outdated factories that use far more water than necessary; the lack of a functioning price system, and the lack of water-treatment plants.
In Inner Mongolia, in a village that lies between the Yellow River and the edge of the Gobi Desert, Tian Shenhai, 64, lives with her husband, son and daughter-in-law, 29-year old Zhang Caiyun, in a house of sun-dried mud and straw, a sand dune washed up against one of its walls.
"Twenty years ago, the grass grew so high you couldn't see people," said Mrs. Tian.
In the past, the family kept some 300 sheep. Now, they can only feed 60 to 70. In only a few days, a new rule aimed at curtailing the desertification of Inner Mongolia would be coming into effect, and the family would no longer be allowed to let the sheep graze freely, but would have to keep them fenced in and bring the grass to them.
They would have to build a shed, and Mrs. Tian worried about the cost, $150, for the machine they needed to buy to process the grass.

Woods and water
Once upon a time, more than 50 percent of northern China, particularly the northeast, was covered by forest. Now only a small percentage of the region's land area remains wooded. Since the end of the civil war in 1949, China's population has increased by some 700 million people. The country embarked on a program of rapid industrialization, and the strain on the land and the ecological web has reached unprecedented levels.
The most obvious sign of this is China's water crisis.
Across northern China, the groundwater table is sinking by about 5 feet per year, due to overpumping. As water tables fall, satellite photographs show hundreds of lakes and rivers disappearing.
In Shanxi province, the Fen River, which used to run through the province's capital, Taiyuan, has virtually ceased to exist. Aquifers beneath the city have dropped more than 300 feet, and the question is whether this city of 2 million people will eventually have to move.
Last fall, the Chinese government announced its intention to go ahead with a gigantic project to divert water from the Yangtze in three separate channels to the desiccated north, an idea ascribed to the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung.
According to preliminary estimates, some 26 billion cubic yards of water from the Yangtze will be diverted annually to northern China. Although this only constitutes a fraction of the mighty Yangtze's annual flow, some scholars are already warning that, eventually, it, too, will run dry.
Paradoxically, even as the Yellow River dries up, the threat of flooding remains. With its high level of fine, yellowish silt, accumulated on its long journey through a plateau, the Yellow River is the world's muddiest major river. When the river reaches the flat North China Plain, this silt settles on the river bed, raising it by 4-6 inches per year.
In some places, the river now flows 60 feet above the surrounding plain. Under the torrential rains of summer, the river swells rapidly, and any rupture of the embankments can cause havoc — hence the river's nickname: China's Sorrow. During the past 2,600 years, the river has breached its dikes more than 1,500 times, often with devastating results, and changed its course 13 times.

River used as weapon
Throughout China's history, its rulers have been judged by their ability to manage the Yellow River. They have also used its lethal potential as a military weapon. In June 1938, as the Japanese Imperial Army was advancing westward across northern China, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek ordered the destruction of the Yellow River's dikes near Zhengzhou to tie down the enemy. The breach soon grew to 1,500 feet.
"I heard the explosion. When I saw the water, I started running home," said Li Guichi, a 72- year-old woman who still lives in the town of Huayankou, where the dynamite was detonated. As a military maneuver, the action was a success, but for the farmers living on the flood plain, it was an enormous catastrophe: Nearly a million people perished.
"We didn't have any food. We ate grass," Mrs. Li said. Looking out over the parched riverbed, it was hard to imagine the flooding and the suffering that she described.

Sea ruins cropland
Just north of the last bridge across the Yellow River before it enters the sea, near the town of Kenli in Shandong province, Wang Guishan, has a little kiosk atop the northern dike. "The river usually runs dry in March," he said. "This year, though, they have kept the river flowing all year."
An acquaintance from a nearby village arrived on a bicycle with two plastic containers. There was no water in his village, he explained. Mr. Wang has a tap. The man filled his two containers with the brownish water and rode off.
At the foot of the dike, the flood plain stretched for about half a mile to the river. Until only a few years ago, farmers in Mr. Wang's village cultivated this fertile land. Recently, because of soil salinity, the farmers have abandoned these fields, which has reduced their land under cultivation by half.
Near a house down in the village, there was a water tap. "The oil people laid the water pipes for us," the man of the house explained, referring to the nearby Shengli oil fields. The tap was dripping slowly. Beneath it, there was a cup to catch the precious liquid.


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